Degenerative disc disease is one of the most common causes of low back pain and also one of the most misunderstood. Degenerative disc disease (DDD) is typically associated with aging.

As you age, your discs, like other joints in the body, can degenerate (break down) and become problematic: that's a natural part of growing older as your body deals with years of strain, overuse, and even misuse. However, DDD can occur in people as young as 20.  In fact, some patients may inherit a prematurely aging spine.

Many people become fearful when they learn that they have Degenerative Disc Disease because the term sounds frightening. Although, the words might frighten you, degenerative disc disease is not really a disease. It is actually a term commonly used to describe the normal process that all of our discs undergo as we age.

Degenerative disc disease involves the intervertebral discs. These are the cushions between your vertebrae in your spine. As you age, the discs can lose flexibility, elasticity, and shock absorbing characteristics. They also become thinner as they dehydrate. When all that happens, the discs change from a state that allows fluid movement to a stiff and rigid state that restricts your movement and causes pain.

If you have chronic back or neck pain, you may have degenerative disc disease.

The most frequent symptoms are lower back pain and spasm. Pain is made worse by sitting, bending, or standing, and is often relieved by lying down.  It commonly occurs in your lower back (lumbar spine) or neck (cervical spine). Symptoms vary from person to person. Some people have degenerative disc disease and have no symptoms, while others have severe pain.

For an accurate diagnosis, you need to be evaluated by a physician who conducts a medical history and thorough physical examination. A Diagnostic test such as an MRI can be helpful in identifying areas of disc degeneration.

Initial treatment is non-surgical. A physician may initially prescribe an anti-inflammatory medication and physical therapy to treat degenerative disc disease. A tailored program of physical therapy with spinal stabilization training usually works well for this condition. For some patients, a trial with a narcotic medication might be needed.

Further treatment depends on whether the damaged disc has resulted in other conditions, such as a herniated disc, or spinal stenosis. In these cases, an epidural steroid injection can be very effective in resolving the pain. If arthritis in the small joints of the back is the primary problem, injections into these small joints called facet injections can be done to relieve pain.

If conservative treatment fails, a discogram can identify problematic discs since some degenerative discs do not cause pain. If painful discs reproducing the patient’s pain are noted during the discogram, surgery for degenerative disc disease can be performed to remove the damaged disc.

If you are among those who suffer from degenerative disc disease, the good news is that this condition usually improves with the appropriate conservative management.
See your physician to determine if you have degenerative disc disease.

This article is not meant to give or replace valuable medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. It is designed for educational purposes. If you have questions or would like to request a future topic, email

©2012 Winifred Bragg, MD. All Rights Reserved. 

Author's Bio: 

Winifred Bragg, MD is the CEO of the Spine and Orthopedic Pain Center, and is also a keynote speaker and author of Knockoutpain(R):Secrets to Maintain a Healthy Back.

She has taught thousands why staying strong and maintaining a strong mental toughness are essential to overcoming adversities. She has been featured on NBC, ABC, FOX and CBS news television segments.

Dr. Bragg delivers powerful messages on the importance of maintaining a positive attitude and a commitment to self-improvement as key elements to succeed.